Having sought the advice of fellow chowhounds and chowhounditas, and also not having seen much (or anything) posted of recent vintage, I thought I would begin to repay my debts by recounting Saturday evening's repast at Ambria. For those who have never been, it is a beautifully appointed room-lots of dark wood and art nouveau touches-that surprises by its sound level. It is not terribly hard to be heard across the table but it's not so easy as one might expect. Our reservation was for 8 pm and the room was, not surprisingly, filled. That was my very first slightly "off" note in any evening that did not have many.
Service was nearly impeccable from start to finish (see below for the on;y caveat) and began with an amuse bouche of beef consomme with some slices of chanterelle (won't swear to the kind of mushroom-sorry). Served in exquisite miniature soup tureens and demitasse spoons. Perfectly balanced, just enough to whet the palate.
We each began with a salad: I had a watercress with roasted pears, roquefort, walnuts and a cranberry vinaigrette; my companion had a mesclun/mixed greens. While my companion's was professed to be excellent, mine was not. Plenty of watercress but surprisingly-dare I say "woefully"?-short on roasted pears and roquefort. When a fork included enough pear and cheese to offset the 'cress, very pleasing indeed. But I ate a lot of unaccompanied watercress. Disappointing for a $12 salad.
Dinner: roast veal chop and a navy bean puree with cauliflower gratin and saffron basmati rice for me; monkfish with a red wine reduction served on the side for my companion. Unconditionally excellent on both counts-without any hesitation. My meat was cooked as they recommended, medium. Precisely done, perfect color, generous amount without being either too much or too little. The cauliflower gratin looked like a picture from a textbook. Perfect; perfectly cooked. The rice, also perfectly seasoned, a tiny bit shy of al dente, and served in a copper measuring cup. (About one cup, I'd say.) My companion was on the small side and thus it was that the smallish piece of fish was perfectly sized and cooked. Had I ordered it, I would have been a bit hungry, perhaps. Prices, for those meticulously minded readers: $36 for the veal, $27 for the monkfish.
I took the server's suggestion at the outset and ordered a souffle (from a choice of chocolate, Grand Marnier, or raspberry). In fairness, I must confess that the dessert trolley may be the finest example of the genre that I have ever seen. Certainly that I can remember. Aided by a waiter who was born to trumpet the virtues of desserts .. "What do we have for our guests, Don?" Example after example was original, creative, beautifully thought-out, and superbly presented on the plate. Even things that would not normally have tempted me did so in this venue. Absolutely brilliant. My companion had the house specialty: white chocolate mousse cake, garnished with fresh raspberries, raspberry and vanilla sauces, and a rose petal ice cream. Wow!
Sadly (for me), my companion does not drink. So I had a choice of wines by the glass. I know a fair amount about wine but decided, after some hesitation (due to indecision, solely) to leave the choice up to the sommelier. There were about six kinds of white, perhaps eight or nine reds. Impressively enough, nothing was more than $13 a glass. A nice selection, though perhaps, ultimately, not quite as large a selection as one might hope. I was given a California cabernet, 1998, that complemented the veal perfectly. My only disappointment was that the sommelier did not come over at any point in the entire evening. I would have liked to discuss the choice just for a minute or two, if for no other reason, to learn about something that was new to me. My own feeling is that although I wasn't spending a lot, or even buying a bottle, I am entitled to his or her time nevertheless. For all I know, our busboy chose the wine; it was excellent in any event.
At the end of the evening, comparing notes, my companion and I found ourselves at odds. One of us was quite charmed and enjoyed the evening immensely. I did not. Except for the noted objection to the watercress salad, I cannot find anything amiss in an entire evening of food. And yet . The tables are not perilously close together, the service was nearly impeccable, and yet . I spent more time in conversation than examining our surroundings and so cannot safely attribute the noise to the wood walls .I can't even remember whether there was carpet or not. But I was disappointed at the noise level. I have seen several write-ups describe Ambria as romantic. Hardly. Unless you equate 'romance' with a constant noise level in the background.
Moreover, there was that indefinable "je ne sais quoi" that just seemed missing. Will I return? Yes; I have little hesitation in saying so. Do I expect a repeat performance? Frankly, I do. I think part-only part-of what disappointed was a lack of true warmth from the staff. Almost faultless service, technically. Not overly formal, not pretentious. But faultless service must be human and there was just something missing. We always had exactly enough time and never once felt rushed or a single other complaint whatsoever. But something, some indefinable thing was lacking.
The tab for two, exclusive of tip, was $143. Not cheap, considering I had but one glass of wine. (Though we did have two bottles of water at $6 each.)
2300 N. Lincoln Park West
(in the Belden Stratford Hotel)